© 2020 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
This is where you can find information from our newsroom and reliable community sources on reaction to the police-involved fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

'It's Racism': Activist's Film Examines Why Being Black And Pregnant Can Be Dangerous

Gena Stringer labors in the hospital with doula Benetta Ward as Brittany Ferrell captures the moment for her film project.
Provided | Brittany Ferrell
Gena Stringer labors in the hospital with doula Benetta Ward as Brittany Ferrell captures the moment for her film project.

When a Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown in 2014, St. Louisan Brittany Ferrell left nursing school to join the protests. Five years later, she’s pouring her activism into another outlet: a film project.

“You Lucky You Got a Mama” focuses on how African Americans are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications and childbirth as white women.

Ferrell wants to show people that the higher risk to African Americans is a complicated situation with a simple cause.

“Let’s name it for what it is, and it’s racism,” Ferrell said. “It’s racial bias.”

She believes black people aren’t getting the care they deserve.

“Black women are not listened to, and then we are blamed for our own demise,” Farrell said. “We are blamed for our own decline in health.”

‘It’s Going To Help Another Woman’

After her educational hiatus, Ferrell, 30, returned to nursing school and graduated in 2015. She worked as a labor and delivery nurse, and also became a certified doula, someone who develops an ongoing relationship with women who are pregnant or in labor to help them through the process.

In her hospital job, Ferrell said she saw white nurses criticizing black patients and families for black cultural norms such as large, extended families showing up for a new baby.

She heard “things like, ‘Oh, there’s too many people in the room.’ But I know what they’re doing there; they’re celebrating life.”

Ferrell, the mother of an 11-year-old daughter, began looking more closely at how black patients are viewed and treated, and at how that might be related to the statistics for black maternal mortality. From her experience, she said, medical providers often fail to take seriously the concerns of African Americans who are pregnant or in labor, including those who indentify as transgender or nonbinary.

Brittany Ferrell takes video of Iyanna Graham at home, with two of Graham's three children standing close by.
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

Ferell points to the experience of Iyanna Graham of St. Louis. Graham is eight months pregnant with her fourth child and has three children under the age of 4.

After Graham’s first child was born, she passed several large blood clots while showering. A nurse dismissed her concerns, but doctors later discovered it was an emergency, requiring a blood transfusion.

“I almost died giving birth to my daughter,” Graham said.

Graham was at first skeptical of being part of “You Lucky You Got a Mama” but decided to step out of her comfort zone.  

“Because it’s going to help another woman,” Graham said. “It’s going to help someone else get through their pregnancy and get through their fears of, ‘What if I die having my child?’”

‘Are You Sure She’s a Doctor?’

Horrific examples of medical racism stand out in U.S. history. For decades, black men with syphillis in Tuskegee, Alabama were left untreated as an experiment. Scientists all over the world studied the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, who died at Johns Hopkins University, without her family’s permission or knowledge.

For Ferrell, the disturbing history and present-day racism are part of the same story.

“It’s not limited to what we saw in Ferguson, and what we see all over this country like police-involved murders,” Ferrell said. “We are also experiencing violence inside of institutions and especially in these medical institutions.”

Brittany "Tru" Kellman of Jamaa Birth Village performs an in-home examination of a pregnant woman in this still photo from the film project. Jamaa Birth Village provides care for black women, by black women.
Provided | Brittany Ferrell

Ferrell said that instead of listening to black patients, medical providers often judge them. She heard other medical professionals make disparaging comments about African Americans experiencing difficulty in pregnancy and childbirth.

“Oh well, she didn't finish her high school education. Or, she works at a minimum-wage job, or she doesn't exercise enough,” Ferrell recalled hearing. “Or, maybe if you had a better attitude about things.”

Part of the problem is that some white doctors don’t understand the lives of their black patients, Ferrell said. At the same time, some African American patients don’t trust black doctors because they’re unaccustomed to African Americans in positions of authority.

Ferrell said Graham had never seen a black doctor until her fourth pregnancy and was initially suspicious.

“And she was like, 'Oh my gosh, like, I mean, are you sure?'” Ferrell recalled. “'I mean, are you sure she’s a doctor, like, you went to school like all the other doctors went to school?'”

Ferrell, who is black, has also seen African American patients and families visibly relax when she enters their hospital room.

“I experienced that a lot, where people said to me, ‘I have not seen a black person all day long,’” Ferrell said. “It’s like a sense of comfort and a sigh of relief.”

‘You Take Your Place’

Filmmaker and nurse Brittany Ferrell talks with film project subject Gina Stringer.
Provided | Bradley Rayford

Ferrell’s passion for social justice was captured in the nationally acclaimed 2017 documentary “Whose Streets.”

Director Sabaah Folayan was drawn to Ferrell as a subject for her collaboration with local artist Damon Davis about outrage sparked in Ferguson when then-officer Darren Wilson, who is white, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man.

“I just saw the energy and the crowd around her and asked her, you know, ‘How do you, as a woman, find your place in this movement?’” Folayan said. “And she said to me, ‘You don't find your place; you don't wait for someone to give you a place, you take your place.’”

“And from that moment on, I just knew that this was a woman who I wanted to get to know and who had something really valuable to say,” Folayan said.

Folayan is now a producer for Ferrell’s project, with Davis acting as a consultant.

The timing of “You Lucky You Got a Mama” is significant, Ferrell said, coming at a time when abortion rights are in jeopardy in Missouri and around the country.

A judge is weighing the objections of Planned Parenthood to the way state health officials have handled the organization’s request for a new license for its St. Louis clinic, the only one that performs abortions in Missouri.

Most of the 700 pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. each year are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given the toll on African Americans, targeting abortion rights is life-threatening, Ferrell said.

She said the absence of a clinic will disproportionately affect black women, who are more likely to die if they carry a pregnancy to term.

“To ban abortions, to me that’s like genocide,” Ferrell said. “It’s being cloaked into the sancity of pregnancy and childbirth, but really, it’s genocide.”

Ferrell said she needs to raise $500,000 to finalize her project. She hopes to finish it by next spring, around the time she achieves another goal: a Master of Public Health degree from Washington University.

Ferrell has ambitions for her film project, which may take the form of a documentary or a series.

“I want this project to really touch people, wake people up, make people feel compelled, make people feel seen,” Ferrell said.

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org